Obedience is Better than Sacrifice

14969291_sIn what seemed to be more of parody of a news story that you’d find on The Onion, a Jim Beam warehouse in Kentucky was struck by lightning. This released 800,000 gallons of bourbon into a nearby pond, which was itself struck by lightning, lighting the bourbon on fire. A small tornado passed over the scene, sucked up the flaming alcohol and created a firenado. Yes, you heard right—a firenado. I think this is what the insurance company would refer to as an act of God. Here is a short video of that scene.

The book of Leviticus has its own story of an act of God with fire, when the two eldest sons of Aaron were consumed by fire because they impulsively offered up unauthorized fire before the Lord. The literal meaning of the Hebrew word here is alien or strange, but the final phrase of Leviticus 10:1 helps us see where the sense of unauthorized is best:

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. (Leviticus 10:1-2)

The explanation of why Nadah and Abihu were consumed by fire is quite abbreviated in the text—they put fire and incense in their censers and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord. Period. For that, they died. What’s more, immediately before this in Leviticus 9:24, fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering on the altar. In an act of approval, God consumes the sacrifice prepared for him. But then strikes down two of his priests for not following protocol. What is going on here? The brief description may be meant to elicit just such a response by the reader. So let’s look deeper.

Fire from heaven is equally used in a beneficial way and as judgment in Scripture, just it is here in Leviticus. Mark Rooker pointed out in his commentary on Leviticus that fire from heaven occurred twelve times in the Old Testament, six times in a beneficial way (Lev 9:24; Judges 6:21; 13:20; 1 Chronicles 21:26; 1 Kings 18:38; and 2 Chronicles 7:1) and six times in judgment (Leviticus 10:1; Numbers 11:1; 16:35; 2 Kings 1:10, 12; and Job 1:16).

Another lesson evident here is the importance of proper worship. John Calvin points us back to the ordination ceremony beginning in Leviticus chapter 8. In his commentary on Leviticus, Calvin said:

If we reflect how holy a thing God’s worship is, the enormity of the punishment will by no means offend us. Besides, it was necessary that their religion should be sanctioned at its very commencement; for if God had suffered the sons of Aaron to transgress with impunity, they would have afterwards carelessly neglected the whole Law.

Both Aaron and his four sons were installed as priests before the Lord. As the high priest, Aaron was singled out for special preparation in his consecration and then in his actual duties. In the ritual, Moses said: “This is the thing that the Lord has commanded to be done” (Leviticus 8:5). The consecration and preparatory sacrifices had to be just so, “for today the Lord will appear to you” (Leviticus 9:4). Aaron and his sons were careful to do all the things that God has commanded through Moses (Leviticus 8:36). And when all these things had been done in accordance with the commandment of the Lord, God fulfilled His promise:

Fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the pieces of fat on the altar, and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces. (Leviticus 9:24)

At this precise moment, Nadab and Abihu stepped forward with their own censors and offered up incense before the Lord. And for their impulsiveness, they died. Their illicit fire was met with divine fire. Up to this point in the ritual, all of Aaron’s sons had played a secondary role in the consecration and the sacrifices. Here they took matters in their own hands. The reply given by Moses to Aaron in Leviticus 10:3 suggests that this unsanctioned behavior had been a violation of acceptable behavior in the presence of the Lord. Moses told Aaron the Lord had said: “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.”

John Hartley said: “By sanctifying themselves and by mediating between Yahweh and the people in the way that Yahweh has instructed, the priests honor him before the people.” But according to Numbers 18:1-7, if any priest violated the sanctity of the sanctuary, the whole community would come under God’s wrath until those in the wrong were removed. By His swift action against Nadab and Abihu, God spared the people of Israel from his wrath.

Still, it seems that God was being too harsh for a mere failure to comply with religious ritual. At the end of Leviticus 10, Moses and Aaron have words over Aaron’s failure to comply with the requirement that the priests eat the sin offering in the sanctuary (Leviticus 6:24-30). No one died from fire then and Moses was satisfied with Aaron’s reasons not to eat the sacrifice as required. What was the big deal with Aaron’s sons?

There is a suggestion to what was going on with Nadan and Abihu in what the Lord spoke to Aaron in Leviticus 10:8-11. The heading in 10:8, “And the Lord spoke to Aaron,” is the only time in Leviticus where the Lord addressed Aaron by himself. All the other instances read “Moses and Aaron” (11:1; 13:1; 14:33; 15:1). According to Hartley, “This means that the following words have tremendous importance for the priests. It also means that Yahweh continues to recognize Aaron as high priest despite the transgression of his two eldest sons.”

Then God said Aaron and his sons should not drink alcoholic beverages when they go into the tent of meeting, “lest you die.” They are to distinguish between the holy and the common, between the clean and the unclean. And they are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes the Lord has spoken to them by Moses.

Placing the decree to not drink alcohol at Leviticus 10:9 could be implying that alcohol was a contributing factor in the sin of Nadab and Abihu. Inebriated, they were unclean while attempting to fulfill an act of worship in the presence of the living God. By their example, they were teaching the people of Israel to disregard the statutes of the Lord. Hartley mentioned this as a possibility, but was quick to point out there is nothing in the actual text of Scripture to support this interpretation. Nevertheless, Mark Rooker said: “This warning was surely received with undivided attentiveness coming on the heels of the transportation of Nadab and Abihu from the tabernacle.”

The possibility that drunkenness was a factor in their destruction is intriguing. Drunkenness is condemned in several Scriptures, such as Proverbs 20:1; 23:29-35; Hosea 4:11; and Isaiah 5:11-12). Within a judgment oracle found in Isaiah 28:7-13, priests and prophets who fail in their spiritual responsibilities are portrayed as drunkards. They reel in vision and stumble in giving judgment. Their tables are covered in vomit. Who will they teach? Infants just weaned from their mothers’ breasts? Their words will be nonsense. Pronouncing the phrase in verse 28:10 and 13, “precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little,” has a distinctive drunken slurring when recited in Hebrew.

But I think there is a better, simpler explanation. They were disobeying the clear and specific command of God. They decided they could disregard the commands of God and worship the Lord as they saw fit. Such spiritual leadership was the antithesis of what Aaron and his sons had just completed in their installation as priests. In a similar situation, the prophet Samuel said to Saul, “to obey is better than sacrifice.”

Through Samuel, God commanded that Saul should “devote to destruction” every Amalekite and all their livestock. Instead, Saul spared the king, Agag and the best of the livestock. But “all that was despised and worthless they devoted to destruction.” Yet when confronted by Samuel with his disobedience, Saul claimed he had obeyed. Samuel said, “Then why do I hear the bleating of sheep and the lowing of oxen?” Saul then lied, saying the people saved the best of the livestock to sacrifice to the Lord. Then Samuel said: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams” (1Samuel 15:22).

Disregarding the command of God disqualified Saul as king. Samuel went on in 15:23 to say that rebellion was the same as divination, and presumption the same as idolatry. “Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you from being king.” Because Nadab and Abihu rejected the word of the Lord, he rejected them from being priests.